The Highlanders left it late as they beat the Bulls 10-17 at Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria, despite having Waisake Naholo sent off with less than 15 minutes to play.
Malakai Fekitoa scored the 76th-minute try, consigning the former three-time champions to yet another defeat.
Nollis Marais’ men levelled the scores at 10-all after Warren Gelant capitalised on Matt Faddes’ mistake, early in the second-half.
But, an implosion of epic proportions, cost the Bulls after having Rudolph Snyman sent off late, and while they were in the ascendency.
The New Zealanders took a seven-point lead into the break, thanks to some magic from Richard Buckman and Faddes.
The hosts fought back, but turned down a late shot at goal, Snyman was red carded for a shoulder charge, they lost a lineout and conceded the Fekitoa dagger.
The Bulls will rue their missed opportunities and ill-discipline, while Marais, will do well to hang on to his job.
Tian Schoeman opened the scoring with a sixth-minute penalty, but the Kiwis struck through Faddes and the boot of Fletcher Smith, on as a blood replacement for Marty Banks.
The standoff kicked a penalty and converted Faddes’ try as the visitors led 3-10 after 23 minutes.
From a scrum near the touchline, Buckman received a double-skip pass from Aaron Smith and puts in a wonderful little chip kick behind the Bulls defenders.
The ball bounced kindly for the fullback, who gathered before Jamba Ulengo or Jade Stighling could collect, and ran away to score under the posts.
The game was played in wet conditions and the field was heavy. The ball was kicked 59 times in the first half alone as the teams played the percentages.
The Bulls have had 58 percent possession and 62 percent territorial advantage, in the first-half. They tackled well, missing one tackle in 21, to the tourists’ eight in 42.
However, the game turned in the 47th minute when Gelant latched onto Burger Odendaal’s kick. Faddes came across to cover but slipped.
The fullback toed the ball forward and flopped on it before it ran over the dead-ball line. Schoeman’s conversion tied the scores.
The Bulls were not without more opportunities; turning down a couple of shots at goal, for scrums and lineouts.
Hanro Liebenberg was said to be one of the youngest Bulls captains to lead the storied franchise. His decision making, or rather lack thereof, ultimately, proved costly.
Naholo was red carded in the 64th minute for a late shoulder charge on Odendaal. This should have been the turning point for Marais’ young team.
Instead, they fell apart, none more so than turning down another penalty at 10-all, in front of the posts in a tight game played in poor conditions.
Snyman lost his head and was sent off with eight minutes remaining, the Highlanders composed themselves and like all New Zealand sides, finished strong.
Four minutes after the lock, his team and coach’s brain-freeze, the visitors stole a lineout inside their 22 and sent the ball wide.
Fekitoa cut through the Bulls defence like a hot knife through butter to score under the sticks after stepping the onrushing Ulengo.
Banks slotted the conversion and moments later, the siren sounded and the Bulls had lost, clutching defeat from the jaws of victory.
Final score is Bulls 10 (3) Highlanders 17 (10)
Tries – Gelant
Pen – Schoeman
Con – Schoeman
Cards – Snyman (Red, 73rd minute)
Tries – Faddes, Fekitoa
Pen – F. Smith
Con – F. Smith, Banks
Cards – Naholo (Red, 64th minute)
Referee: Jaco van Heerden
Assistant Ref 1: Egon Seconds
Assistant Ref 2: Cwengile Jadezweni
TMO: Johan Greeff
15 Warrick Gelant, 14 Jade Stighling, 13 Jesse Kriel, 12 Burger Odendaal, 11 Jamba Ulengo, 10 Tian Schoeman, 9 Piet van Zyl, 8 Hanro Liebenberg (captain), 7 Jannes Kirsten, 6 Ruan Steenkamp, 5 Rudolph Snyman, 4 Jason Jenkins, 3 Trevor Nyakane, 2 Jaco Visagie, 1 Lizo Gqoboka.
Replacements: 16 Edgar Marutlulle, 17 Pierre Schoeman, 18 Coenraad van Vuuren, 19 Lodewyk de Jager, 20 Nick de Jager, 21 Rudy Paige, 22 Tony Jantjies, 23 Jan Serfontein.
Highlanders: 15 Matt Faddes, 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Richard Buckman, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Marty Banks, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Gareth Evans, 7 Dillon Hunt, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Tom Franklin, 4 Alex Ainley, 3 Siosuia Halanukonuka, 2 Ash Dixon (captain), 1 Aki Seiuli.
Replacements: 16 Greg Pleasants-Tate, 17 Daniel Lienert-Brown, 18 Siate Tokolahi, 19 Joe Wheeler, 20 Jackson Hemopo, 21 Kayne Hammington, 22 Fletcher Smith, 23 Teihorangi Walden.